I’m worried about our old dog. Yesterday I came home and found her stuck half in and half out of her doggie door. It requires a slight hop to get through, and her back legs barely have the strength anymore. I helped her outside, where she struggled to squat and do her business. She typically prefers to be outdoors, but yesterday she wanted to come back inside immediately. Red flag. I leaned down to help her back into the garage, and was surprised to find that I could easily lift and carry her. Another red flag. She’s lost so much weight, which is not surprising since she will no longer eat anything but soft food.
Bailey, age 14
Bailey as a pup: Fall 1997
Granted, she is a 14 year old Labrador, so I know our days with her are numbered. But this dog was like my first child, and it’s not going to be easy. We’ve been hoping she would make it through the summer – she turns 15 in August and I can guarantee we’d throw her one heck of a party! But after yesterday, I ‘m scared she is not going to make it that long.
We adopted Bailey within months of moving to Alaska in 1997. Clark and I both desperately wanted a dog, and as soon as we were settled into an apartment it was the first thing on our to-do list. Furniture could wait, a puppy could not.
I was teaching 7th grade language arts at the time, and a boy in my class wrote a journal entry about a rogue neighborhood Chocolate Lab who had impregnated their pure bred Golden Retriever. They weren’t thrilled, but once the little fluff-balls were born, they couldn’t help but fall in love with every last one of them. I immediately accosted my student: Did he have photos? Could I meet the puppies? Were they up for adoption?
And so it began. We picked Bailey from the litter, and they swiped a line of fingernail polish across her fur to mark her as ours. It was an agonizing wait to bring her home, and we visited her often as we waited for her to be weaned and safely separated from her mother.
That poor dog curbed my maternal instincts for years: I sent out birth announcements, created a scrapbook of her adventures, and threw her birthday parties. I even kept her baby teeth (still have them, in fact). In hindsight, I realize how insane I was about this animal!
Bailey's first birthday: were we ready to be parents or what?!
As a young dog, she went everywhere with us. From quick trips to the grocery store to week-long excursions down the Kenai River, that dog was always by our side and eager for the ride. She preferred the front passenger seat, where she insisted on “holding hands” while driving. Literally. She would hold up her left paw and insist on placing it in the driver’s right hand as we cruised down the road. Back then airline travel was easier with pets too, as Delta only charged $50 to check a dog kennel. She regularly flew from Alaska to Nebraska, where she went pheasant hunting with Clark. She loved every minute of it, and would always come home weary, bloody, and excruciatingly happy.
Pheasant hunting in Nebraska
Clark and Bailey in Nebraska
Bailey has always loved Clark more than anyone. If he’s in the room, she wants to lie at his feet. She loves the way he scratches her rump and curiously watches his every move. He’s head over heals for that hound too. One time she fell through the ice on a lake in Nebraska, and against every bit of sanity he stripped down and slid out to save her struggling butt. I’m lucky they are both still alive today.
Bailey is a highly intelligent dog, but Clark and I both admit she’s a few Milkbones short of sanity. Our first clue was her “alligator snapping” habit. She loves to lower down on her front haunches before spiraling up and chomping the air in the general direction of anyone who is willing to play with her. Lunge, chomp, lunge, chomp, lunge, chomp. It’s a wonder she still has teeth after all that chomping she did in her youth. It freaked out our vet so much that he wanted to put her on Prozac. We tried puppy classes, where the trainer just raised her eyebrows in amazement at our dog’s strange snapping behavior.
I wish we would have had a video camera back in the days when she would play with the yard sprinkler. That brought on some seriously hilarious chomping.
When Bailey was younger, her favorite activity was to go on car rides. (She quickly devolved from the endearing hand-holding phase to this psychotic truck-chasing craze.) We’d fold down the rear seats, and she would stand rigid with her head perched between the driver and passenger seats. Her entire body would freeze – with the exception of her silently swishing tail – as she peered down the highway for oncoming traffic. She’d let the little cars pass, but approaching semis would send her flying into the rear window, barking and chomping all the way. Crazy doesn’t even begin to describe it!
When she was nearly two years old, we adopted Kodi. Although Bailey was gentle, curious, and tolerant of this new puppy friend, I must admit these two never fully bonded. In their younger years they ran together, played tug-of-war with ropes, and even wrestled on occasion. But Bailey was far too curmudgeonly and territorial to snuggle or sleep with Kodi, and in confined quarters she would even snarl at the poor girl.
Kodiak, 9 weeks
Bailey checks out her new sister
The new family at mealtime
Kodi loved to fetch from day one, but Bailey hated the competition from her speedy sister. She would put up a few futile efforts before abandoning the game, prancing off to do her own thing: peeing on flowers, chomping on grass, or swimming after ducks. She was like an otter in the water, so graceful and calm. I can remember watching in terrified amazement as she would take dips in the harbor at Valdez, knowing it was nearly 800 feet deep right off the shore. No matter to Bailey – she was a confident swimmer no matter how deep or frigid the water.
Water dog that she is, Bailey loved our raft. At home she could sleep for 20 hours a day, but out on the river she remained alert and excited. She constantly shifted herself to the downwind position, and we could literally see her nose flicking in joy at all the new smells and experiences. By the end of the float she would literally fall asleep sitting up, so stimulated from the sights and smells of the river.
Tired dog: Kenai River, 2011
Sadly, her swimming and hiking days are done. Two years ago we were in the woods seeking out the perfect Christmas tree, but Bailey couldn’t even step over the fallen spruce trunks. Her eyes told us she still wanted to be there, but her poor body would just not cooperate.
Bailey and Kodi (ages 14 and 13): Christmas 2011
It’s crazy, but Bailey has been with us in every home we’ve rented or owned since moving to Alaska. From the 425-square-foot condo where we started to the RV Clark lived in during a seasonal job in Glenallen, she was there:
See her in the back window? Say hi!
When we bought our first home with a fenced yard she was ecstatic. A few years later we bought a duplex, and that move threw her a bit. Eventually she adjusted, and both dogs grew very accustomed to the freedom of a doggie door. But now, after several happy years at the duplex, we have uprooted them one last time. Our new home has too many steps for Bailey’s weary legs, and she spends most of her time asleep on a pet bed in the garage. Is this what she wants?
I wish she could tell us what to do. Is she content to sit back and watch, or is she in so much pain that she wants us to let her go? Does she want us to carry her upstairs in the evenings, or let her be on her pet bed in the garage? Does she want to be pet and brushed, or does it hurt her sensitive skin? Although she can no longer hear us, her eyebrows still flick back and forth inquisitively when we talk to her. She won’t eat dry dog food, but she does seem to enjoy the table scraps and canned food we have been supplementing.
I guess I am preparing myself. It could be weeks or it could be months, and all I can do is pray that we know when the time is right – for her, more than us. She is what matters.
When the time comes, I already know how I will imagine her. She’ll once again have strength in those legs that are failing her, and she will be able to run and swim and chomp and smile and be her crazy self. Maybe a few other dogs in heaven will snarl and put her in her place, and that would be okay too. As long as they all love her… and as long as we have loved her enough.